“Happy pig, good bacon.”
That’s one of Bill Jones’ mantras when it comes to Babes in the Wood, his decade-old pig farm in Buckingham County, also the name of his recently opened farm-to-table restaurant in Charlottesville. You may recognize the names and faces from the City Market—Jones and his wife, Kimberly, figured they’d had so much success with their market booth that they might as well give a brick-and-mortar restaurant a try. The concept of the restaurant, located at 909 W. Main St. in the old Ariana Grill Kabob House space, is pretty simple: Jones and his family raise healthy, happy pigs on 75 acres of forestland and serve up the meat in the form of bacon, bacon jam, sausage and pulled pork.
There’s a scene in the TV show “Gilmore Girls” in which the ever-honest Richard Gilmore comments on the pork served to him at dinner.
“Pork is bred leaner these days. It has a different taste. Less fat equals less flavor,” he says. “Yet another example of the great advances man has made: flavorless pork. Hurrah for the opposable thumbs.”
Jones, who worked an office job in England before moving to Virginia with his wife and starting the farm, says he had long been disappointed by the pork products available in grocery stores.
“The supermarket stuff is so bland,” Jones says. “I figured if I was looking for good pork, other people probably were too.”
Thus, the family founded Babes in the Wood and began raising Tamworth pigs, a rare breed that is “slow-growing but perfectly suited to life in the woods.” The 120-some pigs on the property roam free in their herds 12 months out of the year, regardless of the weather, and Jones says it’s not uncommon for him to step outside and see no sign of them. He feeds the pigs locally grown corn mixed with minerals, plus the occasional table scraps from home and the restaurant, but they also fend for themselves. The restaurant walls are lined with photos from the farm, and one features a pig with its snout buried in the ground, rooting around for bugs and other delicacies.
“On my farm, the pigs run the place,” Jones says. “Until the last day.”
Jones is the first to admit that he gets attached to the animals and has a lot of affection and respect for them. But it’s exactly this respect, and the fact that the pigs live healthy and natural lives, that Jones says makes it easier to say goodbye when the time comes.
“I do admire the pigs greatly. I think they’re fantastic animals the way they’re able to survive all year-round,” he says. “However, they’ve had a good life. I think if you’ve treated an animal well, then it’s okay to take the meat. If you treat them like a machine and treat them terribly, then you get what you deserve.”
There’s something special about digging into a local meal while sitting next to the farmer who raised the meat, and it’s hard to argue with the resulting taste. The barbecue sandwich, which Jones recommends for a first-time customer, is simple and flavorful and not drenched with sauce or overwhelmingly spiced like pulled pork often is. The hickory- and apple-smoked meat is served with a choice of classic or red cabbage coleslaw plus two types of sauce. There’s the thick, sticky, sweet classic barbecue sauce and, for something that packs a bit more of a spicy punch, the thinner, tangier North Carolina variety. Sandwiches on the menu also include a classic BLT, bacon and arugula with herb garlic spread, Italian roast with broccoli rabe and provolone cheese and the Veal and Squeal, a burger made with pork and veal, which Jones also raises on the farm.
Side items include homemade baked beans and crispy, not-too-greasy potato chips that are clearly homemade—you get that perfect crunch with a few softer, puffy pieces mixed in that are reminiscent of home fries. If you have any slaw left over after slathering it on your sandwich, be sure to scoop it up with the chips. In the drink cooler is a selection of beverages that includes freshly squeezed lemonade, Carter Mountain peach cider and Monticello root beer.
In an effort to keep as many menu items as possible connected to the farm, Jones keeps a flock of about 60 chickens that regularly provide fresh eggs, which are available for breakfast at the restaurant all day. Indulge in a biscuit loaded with homemade sausage gravy and a side of cheesy grits or create an omelet with local produce, cheese and, of course, pork (in the form of bacon, sausage and ham). The build-your-own eggs Benedict option allows for some creativity, but don’t mistake the avocado hollandaise for a typical hollandaise sauce with added avocado—Jones says his wife created a sauce of sorts out of avocado and lime juice as an alternative to the classic creamy concoction of egg yolk and butter.
With Babes in the Wood restaurant up and running, Jones is already thinking ahead to ham and pea soup for the fall and, potentially, a food truck. Pork futures worth betting on.